07 October 2013


I had one of those wonderful encounters on Friday that makes even running errands seem poetic.

I had a list of things to do in Manhattan and a plan to get them all done in the morning and be back in Brooklyn with plenty of time before I had to pick up Roan from school.  The first stop was Adorama where I was finally bringing a bunch of great but unused photo equipment that had been left to me by June, a family friend, when she died.  It was all 35mm Nikon stuff and since I've hardly touched any camera other than my point and shoot or my iPhone in over 3 years, I decided to trade it in for a new digital point and shoot.  Trading took ages because the guy handed me a scrap of receipt paper with numbers scribbled all over it that I had to decipher in order to figure out what he was willing to give me for everything.  Then I waffled over which camera to buy for ages.  I got the Fujifilm x20. So far so good.

Since I had to drive in to the city and knew I would be forking over $50 in parking I decided to make a quick trip to the Container Store, which, if you are a bit OCD like me is a veritable Pandora's box of potential storage scenarios.  I don't even know how long I was there but when I emerged I had less than 2 hours to finish up and make it back to Brooklyn.  Fine, I had one more stop to pick up a new coffee table downtown and had to grab lunch. No problem. 

Then suddenly, on the side street of Bed Bath and Beyond, sat a man holding a Graflex Speed Graphic camera with two flashes. Both he and his camera were of an equal classic vintage that one cannot simply pass by.  

I asked him about the camera and why the two flashes.  He told me that one, a blue bulb with a crinkled silver foil inside could only fire off one shot per bulb and that they didn't make the bulbs any more so he had the other one as back up.  "How do you decide who is worthy of one of those bulbs?" I asked, and he said "whenever the mood strikes me". He took a wallet out of his breast pocket and out of it pulled a card with this photo on it:

Jacqueline Bouvier (pre Kennedy), the "Inquiring Photographer Girl" for the Washington Times-Herald

My man on the street then said that his name was Louis Mendes and that he had taken this photo with that same camera in 1952 before she met JFK.  "Google me!" he said. I told him that I used to shoot with a 4x5 in college but that I had just hocked all of this old equipment to buy a digital point and shoot.  It sounded more like a confession than a statement, as though this was the end of my steady technical decline into an abyss of convenience over artistry.  He asked if I was a photographer.  

I always hedge at the moment people ask me that and I don't  know why.  I've been shooting since I was about 13 (with a Zeiss that June gave me, no less)  regardless of where I was, who I was with, or whether or not anyone was paying me to do so  (mostly not).  If I am not a photographer then I don't know what I am, but somehow my inability to properly monetize my talents has made me sheepish about talking about myself as such.  I sort of waffled and said I still shoot but I'm a mom, I'm raising my son, etc, and he said "So?  Lots of women do both nowadays".  Sigh. I didn't want to engage in a debate about the value of working vs. stay at home moms, the costs of childcare, health insurance, the current state of affairs in publishing etc. "Can I take your picture?" I asked instead, and he said "sure". So I did. With my iPhone.

Louis Mendes

He then offered to take a picture of me with his camera for $20.  I said I would pay if I could take a picture of him with his camera.  It's very funny because we were doing the same tap dance that street photographers do when we are trying to sweet talk a stranger into becoming a subject.  He agreed and then produced another Polaroid camera from his briefcase so he could hold his signature camera in the portrait.  I guessed this was not the first time he had become the subject of his own photograph.

He set me up with the camera, set the aperture and the shutter speed, cocked the trigger, focused the camera and handed it to me.  The shot came out a blur.  Hmm.  He set up another shot .  Even more blurry.  He looked perplexed.  Then he realized he had forgotten to lock the bellows, which was heartening to me as the man has been shooting for over 50 years.  I shot another and handed the camera back to him.  He looked at me with a smile; the camera was out of film. We both burst into laughter.

"OK this one is going to work, I've got a feeling", and indeed it did.  He took out a little envelope and slid the Polaroid into a mat and signed it. This is his schtick but it's a wonderful schtick.  I was so much happier to pay $20 for this than the $50 I was about to pay for parking my damn car in midtown.  My encounter with Mr. Mendes put me square in the middle of Friday afternoon traffic on Canal Street and the rest of the day tumbled into chaos but I was too excited about my little street memento to be bothered. 

The front of the envelope is a classic!

The inside, signed, with my Polaroid
I Googled him when I got home.  The math was a little iffy (he would have been 12 years old when he took that pic of Jackie O if the internet dates I found are correct) but he is apparently a street photography legend in NYC.  The NY Times did this piece on him.
I love that he has been doing this for so long.  I am sure it's not really about the camera, although it does lure the customers.  For him, like for me, it's about the interaction, the moment of familiarity and companionship with a total stranger on the street and the willingness of people to believe, even in a city full of hustlers, that one person's vision of another is worth something.

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